For the Republican Party, the 2016 election felt like a triumphant culmination of four years of grassroots organizing, issue-based advocacy, and soul searching after failing to win the White House in 2012. At the federal level, Republicans now control the White House, the U.S. House of Representatives, and the U.S. Senate. In addition, Republicans boast 33 state governorships (perhaps 34, if North Carolina Governor Pat McCrory is successful in his challenge of the election results in his state) and the vast majority of state legislature seats.
Amidst claims that the Democratic bench is not very strong, that the party is going the way of British Labour by doubling down on far leftism, and that some top Democrats are even in denial about the scope of their defeat, it would be easy for Republicans to become complacent.
I argue this is the most dangerous place for the party to be.
The time for celebration of Republican victory is over. Governing in a manner that implements the clearly conservative will of the voters must be the rallying cry for all of those on the right who have ascended to public office at any level. Only then can Republicans eschew complacency and, instead, both maintain and build on their historic majorities.
Things will start in 2017, with two major gubernatorial elections: New Jersey and Virginia.
In the Garden State, former presidential contender Governor Chris Christie is term-limited. On the Republican side, state legislator Jack Ciattarelli has declared his candidacy, while Lieutenant Governor Kim Guadagno may throw her hat in the ring as well. The Republican candidate will likely face Democrat Phil Murphy, a former U.S. Ambassador and Goldman Sachs executive. Top state and national Democrats are already lining up behind the one-time Obama administration official, as they see the New Jersey governor’s seat as one they may be able to flip next year. These Democrats include New Jersey Senate President Steve Sweeney and Jersey City Mayor Steven Fulop, both of whom were considered potential gubernatorial candidates themselves, as well as former DNC Chair Howard Dean and Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe.
Speaking of McAuliffe, he is term-limited in Virginia, and will likely watch his Lieutenant Governor Ralph Northam take the Democratic mantle in 2017. Northam has locked down endorsements from McAuliffe, Tim Kaine, and other prominent Virginia Democrats. The Republican primary features former RNC Chairman Ed Gillespie, as well as a number of other state and federal officials. One also wonders whether the 2017 Virginia governor’s race could serve as the springboard for former Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s political comeback.
The mayoral race in New York City is another one to keep an eye on; incumbent Democrat Bill de Blasio is wildly unpopular and may not even survive his own party’s primary. If he does, the weakened mayor may not be able to beat back a Republican challenger, which could be any one of a number of candidates, including billionaire businessman John Catsimatidis, City Councilman Eric Ulrich, real-estate developer Paul Massey, or Donald Trump, Jr.
2017 is an opportunity for the party to expand the map. New Jersey and Virginia are both states that the GOP lost at the presidential level in 2016, but the 2017 gubernatorial races here are winnable and would be a good barometer of how, exactly, Republicans are bringing more voters into their fold over the next year.
2018, too, is a year in which Republicans need to lock in and focus on keeping control of the government. In total, 36 gubernatorial seats will be up for election, including one-term GOP incumbents in traditionally blue states like Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Vermont, and Wisconsin. In addition, Republican governors in purple states like Florida, Maine, Michigan, Nevada, New Mexico, and Ohio are term-limited.
On the other side, Democrats will have to hold onto seats in states like Colorado and Minnesota, where the sitting Democratic governors are also term-limited or have indicated they will not run again. Other states, where incumbent Democrats are likely to run for re-election, like Connecticut, New York, and Pennsylvania, promise to be close.
A Democratic tide in the 2018 midterms could make it difficult for Republicans to hold onto the overwhelming majority of governorships they currently have, which underscores the imperative that the party has to give the voters what they want. On the flip side, two years of prosperity and growth thanks to conservative policy could give Republicans the opportunity to keep up the momentum, stitching free enterprise and traditionalism more decisively into the fabric of society through lasting initiatives, right-leaning appointments to the state and local courts, and government that works.
Victories for conservative leaders like Congressman Erik Paulsen in Minnesota or one of two prominent county executives in New York, Marcus Molinaro or Rob Astorino, could elevate more Republicans into national political superstardom, at the expense of well-known and popular Democrats like New York Governor Andrew Cuomo.
The Senate map in 2018, in addition, is much more favorable to Republicans. The GOP will defend eight senators, while Democrats have to hold onto 23 seats (in addition to two more independents who caucus with them). It’s likely that only two of those Republican seats will be competitive (noted anti-Trump legislator Jeff Flake in Arizona, and Nevadan Dean Heller), while 11 Democratic senators up for 2018 re-election hail from states Donald Trump won this year.
With a likely 52-48 GOP split in the incoming Senate (assuming Louisiana’s Senate runoff is a GOP victory), if Republicans come close to sweeping the competitive races in 2018 (with a three-seat margin of error), they could head into the second half of President Trump’s first term with a filibuster-proof majority in the upper chamber. This is before considering the ramifications of Nancy Pelosi hanging on as Minority Leader, and how it could further hamper Democratic efforts to take back the House of Representatives.
A strong Republican performance in 2018 would have the added benefit of continuing the erosion of potential 2020 Democratic White House challengers. Presidential hopefuls like Cuomo, Kaine, Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, and New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand are all up, and closer-than-expected victories or even losses for these officials could torpedo their chances for the Oval Office.
Now is the time not to be satisfied with the 2016 results, but rather for Republican activists, strategists, citizens, and candidates to put foot to gas pedal and overwhelm the Democrats with more victories. A best-case scenario sees the GOP entering 2019 with a widened majority in the House, a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate, and a popular President Trump on the back of successful changes to the healthcare law, immigration reform that puts law and order first, trade deals that bring back American jobs and sovereignty, conservative appointments to the Supreme Court, and new infrastructure that makes Americans proud.